When I arrive at The Gov for the 8pm start time I had seen, Selecter front person Pauline Black is out at the merch desk, signing t-shirts, doing selfies. They are doing a roaring trade and there is some gentle hard sell…
“Hey Pauline, this guy doesn’t want to buy a CD but still wants a photo, what do you want to do?”,
“Throw him out!” (she still did the selfie).
So the audience felt a personal connection right from the moment they walked in the door. There is a lot of Fred Perry shirts in attendance, a lot of ex-pats and a nice diverse bunch of ages and types. Very Two-Tone truth be told.
The Selecter are up first and launch into The Avengers from their 2013 CD String Theory. Not surprisingly it’s subject is Emma Peel and Steed, off kilter crime solvers from the sixties TV show. Ska has a great tradition of songs about spies, James Bond, I Spy For The FBI, etc so this fits right into that groove perfectly. Three Minute Hero takes us back to their debut in 1980 and is enthusiastically received. Black’s voice is fantastic and she is a great performer. The band is tight as a drum and fellow original member and vocalist Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson is an unexpected bonus. About a third of the set is new material from last years Daylight album and it’s all great stuff and songs like The Big Badoof, Remember Me and Taking Back Control are up with their best. I suspect those who didn’t get a copy on the way in, picked one up on the way out. The biggest responses were for the classics though. Missing Words, Danger, Train to Skaville and the already mentioned James Bond, fire us up and have (almost) the entire crowd is dancing the bums off. Pauline has a good natured go at those still sitting down, “We are over here y’know”.
On My Radio, is a bloody ripper song and they smash it tonight. infectious and irristable up tempo classic ska gold. Carry On Bring Come is again from that first album Too Much Pressure from 1980. It wasn’t a single but everybody in this room had that album and loves that song. They finish with an absolutely brilliant mash-up of Too Much Pressure and Toots & The Maytals Pressure Drop. Why has nobody ever done this before now? The band are beaming, the audience is blissed out and need a bit of a break before the next round.
In some circles Ska is considered something of a novelty, God that pisses me off when people say things like that. As a genre it’s been around since the sixties. An offshoot of Rocksteady and a precursor to reggae, ska combined American R’n’B, with calypso has had three significant ‘waves’. In the first wave it was people like Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker and Clement Coxsone Dodd, making records that sounded alien to Western ears, but that were so great they crossed over to chart hits. Embraced by British mods (and later, and somewhat inexplicably, skinheads). The third wave had a harder American punk flavour (Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Operation Ivy, Rancid, etc).
But the second wave was the late seventies British bands and my favourite. Referred to as The 2-Tone era because of that labels domination of the charts with The Specials, Bad Manners, Rico and The Selecter. The first single from Madness was on 2-Tone before they jumped ship to Stiff. Second wave of ska had it’s own sound, fashions, style, haircuts, dance steps and ethos. It was an inclusive scene, with bands made up of different genders and skin tones in a movement that a strong stand against racism and the insidious national front of Thatcher’s Britain. It shared much of the energy of the punk scene, but was in many way more overtly positive. The biggest bands of the era were The Specials, Madness but The Beat were certainly up there too. And were the first two quickly morphed away from a strictly ‘ska’ format, Madness becoming one of the most excellent creators of classic pop songs, The Specials burned bright for two albums until three key members split to form Fun Boy Three, and the others embraced a bit more of a bleaker, understated sound as The Specials AKA. In contrast The Beat (or British Beat as they were known in Australia, and confusingly UK Beat in the USA) managed to embrace the best of the pop chops that gave them a massive amount of hit singles but remain essentially a ska outfit.
A couple of years ago a different version of The Beat (that lead by Dave Wakeling) played in the same venue and they were tippy bloody top. This version is fronted by Ranking Roger, who sang on a good chunk of the hits and has assembled a ripper band that deliver all The Beat hits. They kick off with Whine & Grine from the I Just Can’t Stop It record from 1981. Ranking Roger hits the stage and his hip length dreads are flying everywhere and his son Ranking Junior is dressed in a stylized ‘2-Tone’ shirt and is no slouch in the vocals department. Like The Selecter – this band is fan-bloody-tastic. Andy Perriss on guitar is exceptional. They have a killer drummer in Fuzz Townend who some may know from Bentley Rythm Ace or Pop Will Eat Itself, but others were going ‘That’s the guy from (car restoration show) Car SOS on UK’. show, and so it was! These songs rely on a super solid rhythm section and a groove, which with Fuzz and a great bass player, Andy Pearson, they have in no small portion.
It is testament to their catalogue of hits that 90% of their set is not only singles, but huge hit singles. So after Whine, it’s a rapid fire Gatling Gun of Stand Down Margret, Doors of Your Heart, Hands Off She’s Mine, Twist and Crawl, Save It For Later and Too Nice To Talk To. That is more classic sings than most groups of three bands can combine on a tour. They dedicate songs to “all the rude girls” and “all the rude boys”. The mood in the crowd is euphoric, all those Fred Perrys are skankin’ and having a ball.
There are a few new numbers like Side to Side, My Dream Fire Burn and Avoid The Obvious from their 2016 album Bounce, but they are excellent songs and spread through the set, so no need for concern. They bang out a raucous version of The Clash’s Rock the Casbah (which Roger had recorded on his solo Pop Off The Headtop in 2014). Can’t Get Used To Losing You was originally a hit for 60s crooner Andy Williams, and was an unlikely cover for a top of the charts ska band in 1983, but they made it their own and it’s another big sing-a-long tonight. Their first single in 1979 was Tears of a Clown also a cover (Smokey Robinson) and it now there isn’t a motionless body in the building, everybody is singing, everybody is dancing, everybody is having a blinder!
Ranking Full Stop is about as big a second wave ska classic as you could imagine and the extended version tonight is astounding. Barely a breath before they launch into an even more extended Mirror In The Bathroom. The rhythm section laying down a rock steady bed for solos and toasting, it goes for around ten minutes and is ‘kin ace. The audience become a cross between a stadium of soccer fans and a mass karaoke choir, taking over lead vocals in the middle and going crazy-ape-shit-bonkers at the end.
After a few minutes they return, along with Pauline, Gap and other members of The Selecter. They finish with the epic Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think). Originally published in 1949, it had been recorded by Bing Corsby, Doris Day, Tommy Dorsey, among others. But in the late sixties Louis Prima swung it up and Prince Buster did a ska version in 1968. The Specials did a cover of the Prince Buster cover and tonight The Beat & Selecter cover the Specials cover of the Prince Buster cover. Follow all that? Whatever it was it was a turbo blast to finish with.
Brilliant night with two brilliant bands – Come back soon ladies and gentlemen of Ska!
Review by Ian Bell